A is for Avanti West Coast

Saturday 14th January 2023

Welcome to another year of A to Z fortnightly blogposts which for 2023 are featuring bus and train companies. I’m beginning with the ironically named Avanti West Coast …. bearing in mind recent history, ‘Avanti’ is Italian for ‘Forward’ “reflecting a mission to deliver an innovative railway service that is ready for today and fit for the future”.

That mission statement hasn’t quite stood the test of time since those heady days in December 2019 when First Group (70%) and Trenitalia (30%) through their jointly owned West Coast Partnership holding company were handed the keys to the new franchise. It’s stretching the meaning of “innovative” somewhat but I suppose last Summer’s nadir of slashed frequencies to Manchester and Birmingham from three trains per hour down to hourly could be considered “innovative”.

The consequence of last summer’s meltdown has led to the unfortunate descriptor of “the troubled Avanti West Coast” whenever it features in the media. Reputations can be quickly lost but take a long while to recover.

To be fair to Avanti for a paragraph though, it had hardly got going – three months from its standing start – when lockdown hit causing driver recruitment and training to be stalled, although that’s not the full explanation by any means, but it’s certainly a contributory factor. I suspect Virgin/Stagecoach lacked any motivation to hand the franchise over with everything in tip top order too.

Avanti operate 16 stations along its routes which link Euston with Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool as well as the West Midlands and also Edinburgh, Blackpool North and Holyhead.

It has 64 trains in its fleet, mostly Pendolinos (21 nine car and 25 eleven car) as well as 18 Super Voyagers. The latter are due to be replaced later this year with 23 Hitachi trains (13 five car Class 806 and 10 seven car Class 807). The Pendolinos are gradually being refurbished as have some of the Voyagers.

A refurbished Voyager
A refurbished Pendolino

A novel innovation introduced a couple of years ago was to downgrade at least one carriage in the Pendolino fleet from First Class to a new Standard Premium class. It’s the same First Class ambiance (seats and tables etc) but no complimentary refreshments are served at seat.

A supplement for a Standard Premium can be paid on the train and varies per distance travelled but typically £25 to £35 which is significantly less than the walk-up fare for First Class. Some bargain prices for First Class seats are sometimes available with Advanced Tickets though so it’s worth checking relative prices and weighing up the value of the offer of complimentary refreshments.

SeatFrog upgrades to First Class now have a starting price higher than the Standard Premium fare which means you need to work out how much the complimentary refreshments offer is to you for your journey.

For example SeatFrog bidding for my journey from Carlisle to Euston on Thursday afternoon started at £35 and ended at £49. The Standard Premium upgrade is £30 so you have to be confident the refreshments are worth paying an extra £19 as the seat and ambiance is the same.

Having ducked the auction, SeatFrog offered me the opportunity to still upgrade to First Class for a ludicrous £95 which was £65 more than the same quality of service in Standard Premium (minus the refreshments). No thanks.

Avanti’s website is fairly easy to navigate giving relatively easy access to a traditional laid out timetable in pdf format (three clicks from the home page – Travel Information – Plan your journey – Timetables).

That’s a plus but the negative is these are currently only valid for the following week with the instruction to “check back again soon” for information further ahead. It’s odd as times are shown as being “in journey planner” right through until early March, so I don’t understand why that information can’t be displayed in a traditional timetable format too.

It’s also odd as advanced tickets can be purchased for weekday travel up to two months ahead but for weekend travel they’re restricted to four weeks ahead which is not very helpful bearing in mind weekend leisure travel is booming.

Checking prices yesterday for a day return journey from Euston to Manchester in ten days time on Tuesday 24th January offered me a Standard Class Advance Single on the 09:53 departure for £32 and £47.40 on the 15:35 return which compares favourably with the £98.10 Off-Peak Return – although that would allow me to use the earlier 09:33 from Euston and obviously travel flexibly on any later journey as well as return on any journey. Had I wanted to enjoy complete flexibility and leave Euston before 09:26 the Anytime Return ticket price is a staggering £369.40. An Advance Single in the morning peak leaving Euston is £136.30. Obviously these prices can be reduced with a railcard for those that have one.

To get a feel for how Avanti are doing since it introduced the almost back to normal timetable last month I made three journeys with them this last week. On Tuesday I caught the 09:30 from Euston to Glasgow as far as Preston and returned on the 16:59 from Preston to Euston (14:34 ex Glasgow).

The 09:30 wasn’t very busy with plenty of empty seats. We left Euston on time but made slow progress approaching both Rugby and Nuneaton. No explanation was given until we were coming into Warrington Bank Quay when the Train Manager apologised for the 16 minute late arrival “which was due to speed restrictions earlier in the journey”.

We lost two more minutes at Wigan North Western and arrived into Preston at 11:58 instead of 11:39. I left the train there but I see it continued on to Carlisle 20 minutes down and then further problems led to more delays with a 51 minute late arrival into Glasgow Central at 14:53 instead of 14:02.

Meanwhile around lunch time all lines between Penrith and Oxenholme were blocked for an hour or so due to flooding which led to three consecutive southbound departures to Euston from Preston at 14:01, 15:01 and 16:01 being cancelled with the late arriving trains from Glasgow terminating in Preston.

I was booked on the next departure at 16:59 which arrived twenty minutes late and bearing in mind the gap in service wasn’t as busy as I’d expected, although I splashed out on a Standard Premium upgrade knowing I’d be getting some delay repay compensation for the day’s disruption to offset that additional £25 cost. We had a few more sections of slow progress and arrived into Euston at 19:37 instead of 19:12.

Tuesday’s delays weren’t Avanti’s fault and the on board staff apologised but in neither case was there a mention of Delay Repay and I feel an earlier explanation of the northbound journey’s slow progress would have been more reassuring.

My third journey was on Thursday afternoon on the 14:49 from Carlisle to Euston (13:35 ex Glasgow Central). This was showing as eight minutes late arrival into Carlisle having got caught behind a late running TransPennine Express (TPE) to Manchester Airport. However the signaller put that train into platform 3 allowing the Avanti train to use platform 4 and leapfrog it especially as the TPE was stopping at Penrith but we weren’t.

The Train Manager apologised for the late running when we arrived at Oxenholme explaining this was due to a speed restriction over a level crossing near Glasgow and the good news was we had made up six minutes by the time we left Warrington Bank Quay for the non stop sprint down to Euston which was anticipating an on time arrival. All went well until we approached Rugby and got caught behind two late running trains from Birmingham to Euston leading to more slow running for us, as well as the trains behind us. In fact everything was running late both northbound and southbound on Thursday afternoon. We arrived into Euston at 18:32, 19 minutes later than scheduled and although the Train Manager gave apologies again no mention was made of Delay Repay.

Manual ticket checks as passengers board at Euston are a regular feature ….
….but are being replaced by the installation of more ticket gates

Those three sample journeys reaffirm the current poor state of timekeeping on the West Coast Main Line. It’s a welcome development to see the timetables for Birmingham and Manchester now at two and three trains per hour respectively with one of the former continuing to Blackpool, Glasgow or Edinburgh along with the hourly Euston to Glasgow direct as well as to Liverpool and some journeys to Chester and Holyhead.

Except there are still too many cancellations, for example, from Euston yesterday the 07:13, 08:53 and 12:13 to Manchester, 19:02 to Holyhead snd 20:33 to Preston were cancelled due to an “issue with train crew”; while the 08:10, 09:10, 11:40, 13:40 and 17:16 to Birmingham and 08:52 to Manchester didn’t run due to an “electrified line problem” (although other departures before and after each of those ran normally so it sounds a bit suspect as a reason).

In conclusion there’s no doubt Avanti have had a baptism of fire dealing with a severe shortage of trained drivers part of which was caused by matters outside of its control (ie the pandemic) and industrial relations difficulties but service onboard in my experience is to a high standard and much the same as its predecessor Virgin, which perhaps isn’t surprising as the staff are the same.

Hopefully the turmoil of the last three years will soon be behind it and when the current six month extended contract expires in mid March it will be awarded a longer timeframe. I don’t think changing ownership will be in anyone’s interests now that discernible improvements can be seen.

It’s time for Avanti to move forward.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

23 thoughts on “A is for Avanti West Coast

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  1. With delays like those, the idea of how long to plan for your journey to take starts expanding grossly. I know that, since Virgin’s approach of ‘a train like a plane’, the long distance companies have decided that the convenience (to them) of knowing how full each train will be has trumped the more passenger-friendly notion of ‘any-time’ tickets, so that they have priced the latter outside the reach of most people’s pockets. But if the train cannot reasonably be guaranteed to arrive within an hour of its official time, and I want – say – three hours in Glasgow; I have to catch a much earlier train than I need to get there, and plan a much later return, perhaps involving the cost of an extra meal I could otherwise have enjoyed at home; all that, or fork out for the ‘any-time’ ticket; OR maybe look at a road-coach, or a real plane!

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  2. Flooding seems to be an increasing issue and one that should not normally occur

    Rail lines are frequently in cuttings and cuttings often have trees and in Autumn trees shed the leaves and the leaves and ballast can block the drains which leads to flooding. They need to be regularly checked and cleared. They should as well know which sections of line are prone to flooding

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    1. Pretty well the whole of GWR’s intercity network was trashed yesterday by flooding between Swindon and Didcot. Made worse by a casding effect of drivers not being trained for the diversionary routes, then crews running out of hours and then stock being in the whole place. The line remains closed for a second day today (Sun) as well.

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  3. I wonder if part of the timekeeping problem on the West Coast route is simply that trains are timed too tightly in pursuit of some mythical “Glasgow in 5 hours” target (or whatever the target might be). My journeys on Avanti (very few, mind you) are always delayed.
    Might it be better to add in some time along the route to allow for unexpected delays? Stagecoach’s South West Trains undertook a retiming exercise many years ago to add in 30 seconds to every station stop on the majority of their journeys, and reliability soared (and in my experience SWR trains are still generally good timekeepers).
    If I’m travelling from London to Glasgow, and the journey is already 5 hours plus . . . another 10-15 minutes will make very little difference to my “journey experience”. On-time arrivals subjectively make passengers feel that the journey was good . . .

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    1. Expect the South West timetable to be tightened again in due course as for some reason Network Rail and the DfT have decided that theoretical plans which work on paper are far better than timetable plans which have been developed and tweaked over the years and which actually work.

      That’s why East Coast and Midland Main Line punctuality is so poor nowadays, with most trains being at least a few minutes late: someone decided to make station stops shorter in order to make a “faster” timetable, along with random stupidity like scheduling non-stop trains through trains which are stopped in the same platform.

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  4. Will C be for Coastlner? All about the existential threat to the countries prettiest bus route. If you are, we could grab a coffee somewhere on route.

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  5. Forever fascinated by the need of modern railway passengers to be constantly eating (and drinking). In those far off days when it took three hours or more to get from Birmingham to London and most of the day from any points north of, I could understand refreshments and full meals being required. But other than perhaps London-Scotland/Cornwall, now usually a mere 4/5 hours, it is not necessary. Have people forgotten what flasks and sandwiches are if you MUST partake. The obscene amount of litter needing to be collected on each journey speaks volumes, not to mention the costs of staff now having to travel on all trains to do it. Observed at Kings Lynn recently, at least two people, sometimes three, meet each hourly arrival just to clean the train! And that is one “refreshments” are not even provided on. Pity bus passengers don’t get the same pampering, and certainly a clue as to why it costs so much to run a railway.

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  6. The mess can be squarely be laid at the back end of the VT/Stagecoach JVG of the WCML operation – indeed core front line operational staff recruitment has been frozen for around 10 years, and largely has been dependent upon internal progress which doesn’t factor in people leaving / retirement and the headcount number has diminished from the that quirk of a depot’s ‘actual vs requirement’ factors (Graham Eccles has previously mentioned this quirk over on social)

    Additionally, the same scenario as per Stagecoach’s end of SWT tenure and transfer also came into play…then obviously the pandemic hit…the perfect storm.

    Let’s say, barring things out of AWC’s hands, things are a little more stable today.

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    1. I worked for a different Stagecoach Rail operation, East Midlands, for a while and it was the same there: Stagecoach knew the cost of everything, the value of nothing and ran the whole thing on a shoestring.

      Most functions were carrying vacancies for years because they simply weren’t allowed to recruit (unless funding could be screwed out of DfT or stakeholders so it cost Stagecoach nothing) and most of the “improvements” the shouted about were, again, paid for by either the DfT or other stakeholders.

      Ove the years Stagecoach also recruited only yes-people into their management grades and gave them woefully poor training, so the company they handed over to their successor was in no way fit for purpose and people I know who work for that company tell me that the chickens are coming home to roost with the company staggering along from crisis to drama to crisis.

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      1. I worked very briefly as a Station Manager for SWT. Training pretty much consisted of “here’s your mobile phone, get on with it”.

        Luckily training for operational grades was better even if still deficient in some areas. The end result as you rightly say was to leave a knowledge vacuum among those supposedly leading the company.

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  7. Allan Carter, By August 9th 2022 the die was cast. I was due to meet my sisters at Coventry Station in order to celebrate my 80th birthday.
    I got to Euston to find that my Avanti train was cancelled.
    Nothing running Forward.
    The only thing running were people for delayed trains.
    I submitted my delay repay form by August 11th.
    Absolutely nothing has been heard of the repayment from this “company”.
    When I was gainfully employed I had to use Virgin trains. No delays, always punctual really nice meals. Courteous and audible announcements
    Avanti AREN’T going forward, but Backward. Department of Transport WAKE UP take fhe franchise away from the ‘operator’ WITHOUT DELAY.

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  8. I found the description of all the different fares (depending on date/time of travel), standard premium class, and bidding auction websites, a massive psychological barrier to travel. I am thankful that I am unlikely ever to travel on this route.

    We are told that thanks to working from home there are no peaks any more. Time to scrap all peak fares and just have a standard mileage based rate with walk on being the norm. It shouldn’t be so complicated to travel. Savings can be made by cutting out the no longer needed peak hour services, and just run a clock face service all day.

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    1. Sadly, perhaps, I suspect that for every one person put off by the gimmicks, nine out of ten people travel for the gimmicks.

      Ever since the supermarkets discovered money-off offers were the best way to increase profits. No back to basics. We can do everything but unwind the clock. Too many vested interests.

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  9. I, too, have noticed the absence of announcements on Avanti West Coast about Delay Repay when they would be appropriate – one announcement that passengers might actually appreciate!

    Slightly of the specific topic, but I cannot help but admire the concentration and vigilance that the drivers need for the non stop journey between Euston and Warrington Bank Quay. Just imagine trying to keep focussed on the line ahead of you for more than an hour and three quarters, especially in the dark and in all weathers, at speeds up to 125 mph, then bringing your train smoothly to a stop at the correct point at the end of it.

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  10. Magor land slip near Hook, Both lines towards Basingstoke are closed. Both London bound line will be subject to speed limits and may need to be closed one work commences on rebuilding rhe embankment

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    1. I’m sure I remember a landslip at a similar location many years ago – possibly just before steam disappeared in 1967. At that time the tracks affected were the 2 northernmost, leaving the 2 southerly tracks working though at much reduced speed.

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  11. But where else on these islands(except a dedicated racetrack or in the virtual world) can we lawfully get the adrenaline thrill of a 125mph ride?

    Perhaps that’s why Roger’s blog is so popular. It’s like having our own (virtual) 7 year old; or in my case the equivalent of a puppy walk, without having to leave my armchair!

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  12. Many thanks for this. I think I can give a view based on rather too much time spent travelling and waiting. I was a 1st class annual season ticket holder from New Street to Euston. A simple journey 07.30 non-stop to Euston in 1 hr and 12 and back on a 19.23. Approx £18k per annum pre covid.

    Last year my Avanti spend was about £6k. Chiltern and hotels picked up the slack. I am aiming for weekly season tickets, week on, week off. I would do an annual if the service merited it. Realistically, as I cruise towards the next railcard, I can not cope with the poor service.

    To be clear there are fewer trains, stopping at more intermediate stations and taking longer. First class is now 1.5 carriages and crowded, the train running is unreliable and the on board service is variable. I can’t reserve a seat with a season ticket and there are fewer unreserved seats – and after nearly 20 years the reservation displays still don’t work (today because the Wifi doesn’t work).

    On reliability its not all Avanti. The wires are down again today. Two out of three 7-8am services cancelled and I am leaving 43 late. The perception of unreliability is magnified via social media as you follow Avanti on Twitter and search live departure boards. Landlslips/wires down north of Carlisle don’t impact me but I become aware of these reliability issues.

    But should I be needing Live Departure Boards, Traksy, Twitter, etc etc for a simple journey.

    You discuss judging whether to pay 1st for the food. The problem in the evening is that the offered menu is never, I mean never, delivered. This is down to poor staff supervision magnified post Covid by a tranche of recruits from a bouyant labour market with simply the wrong attitude. The starting point is that menu’s are not placed so what you get is what the staff say is available. The staff self-select down to minimum effort. Desserts are just never offered. In Q4 last year we reached a stage where you had to realise that a drinks order had to cover both cold and hot or you would only get one. The show is held up by some excellent long-servers. However, the towel will be thrown in at the drop of a hat. Train is too busy, short staff, no water, missed delivery, broken water heater…..

    You focussed on Avanti. To me the competition to the 07.17 Avanti from new Street is the 07.07 from Snow Hill. Mk3 declassified Business coach.

    Overall Avanti have abandoned the business market. Sure business travel and season tickets have dropped. But give us the service and there is a lot of demand.

    Call me Karen but when you pay for a service..

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Regarding the closed lines today between Basingstoke and Brookwood, SWR has not put on any buses. They say they do not put buses on when passengers are told not to travel! But we were going home so had to get home. Of course we would not have travelled if told not to, but we went out [to Salisbury] on Friday. So taxi from Basingstoke to Fleet.
    So no buses now!

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